How We Remember American Slavery

In his book, Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats shares his understanding of the universe with his son. He focuses on the shared experiences of black Americans dating back to slavery and the time immediately after the institution fell. What Coats returns to over and over in his book is the idea of the physical relationship between black people, white people, and our country. His views are not pretty, but they represent a reality that we have tried to forget and that many of us have done a good job ignoring.

“In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest.”

I recently read a piece on Vox.com that was written by an individual who used to lead tours at a historical plantation in the South, and the author was struck by the questions people asked and about the way in which people made an effort to skip past the violent reality of slavery. The host was often asked questions that showed that people did not truly understand the brutality of slavery. Questions like whether or not house slaves appreciated getting to be in a house and not in a field. Many people had a view of slavery that sounded more like a view of minimum wage workers than of people forced into labor, exploited, and physically punished if they did not comply with the requests and demands of an individual with fully subjective control over their lives.

Growing up in Reno, Nevada I felt that I had a pretty good education regarding the Civil War. I was taught that the war was about slavery and not about state’s rights, but never in my classes did we truly discuss what it meant to be enslaved and the violence that the enslaved faced. I understood that there were violent reactions and punishments for those who fled slavery, but we did not discuss what it meant to not have ownership of one’s physical body, and for that body to be physically destroyed by another human being. I think that Coats is justified in arguing that we should think of slavery as not just borrowed or uncompensated labor (the way we may think about college interns today) but we should rather think of slavery as the destruction of a human being, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The toll on the body of the human being that slavery, lynchings, and punishment have brought to black people were meant to take away the power of the black person and to demote them to a lower place in a fictitious hierarchy of human beings. We must not forget what it meant to own another human being. Slavery and owning another human being meant that American’s did more than exploit an individual’s labor for economic gain. It meant that American’s had the authority to use violence, to distort the black body, and to control the physical experience of another human being for purely exploitative means.
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The Onset of the Civil War

I heard recently in a podcast that the North won the Civil War, but the South won the culture war that followed. How we remember the civil war and think about the people who fought on both sides of the war is complex, and there is no easy way to remember and truly understand the history of slavery in our country. Many people in our country have a heritage that runs back to the colonial period prior to the civil war, and for many the iconography of the confederacy is a representation of that heritage. Unfortunately, that iconography, the men and women of that time, and the heritage represented cannot be untangled from the legal ownership and subjugation of human beings. There certainly had been slavery throughout the world before the United States’ Civil War, and outlawing slavery at the time our constitution was written would have required a monarch (something desperately avoided by our founders), but by the time the Civil War occurred, the legitimacy of owning people was very much in doubt. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coats looks at the onset of the Civil War, and why slavery was worth protecting for white men and women in the South.

 

“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies —cotton—was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,’ declared Mississippi as it left the Union, ‘the greatest material interest of the world.'”

 

The right that Southern states wanted to protect was the right for white men and women to own black people as property. The South won a cultural war in changing the meaning and purpose behind the Civil War and throughout reconstruction and the early 1900s this idea was able to spread and gained legitimacy. When we reflect back on the period we should recognize that our history was not guided by angels but shaped by human beings. We made mistakes, we acted in self-interest, and we found ways to excuse our behaviors. We allowed the exploitation of human beings to form the backbone of our greatness, and then we made excuses to allow such exploitation to persist. As deplorable as our humanity may have been, we can still look back and celebrate the best part of our history, but we should not work to salvage memories of the worst part of our history. We can celebrate what men like Washington and Jefferson accomplished despite the fact that they owned slaves, but we should not revere the Confederacy or men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Alexander Stephenson who were major players in history precisely because they owned slaves and fought for the right to continue to subjugate human beings as property. The iconography of the civil war should be understood not as pride in being southern, but as the very battle symbol that men wielded in the fight to maintain the exploitation of black men and women. We cannot compartmentalize the state’s right that the south fought for, and the iconography of the time.

Believing You Are Doing Right When Doing Wrong

A trait we all share as human beings is the ability to rationalize our actions and find fitting excuses for our decisions, priorities, shortcomings, habits, and behaviors. We can take the worst part of ourselves and put a positive spin on it, explaining away the negativity or at least explaining why we are justified in our wrongdoing. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this human ability in terms of racism in his book Between The World and Me.

 

Coats quotes Solzhenitsyn and writes, “‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn. ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”

 

In the passage above, Coats refers to The Dream as the false history and false memory of our nation’s founding, of slavery, and of our nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War. The Dream is not any one particular thing, but a set of experiences and life expectations afforded to white people in America but historically denied to African Americans. At the turn of the 20th century The Dream was denied to African American’s based on a false understanding of biology, genetics, and race, and allowed stereotypes to mascaraed as evidence based truths, lodging deep within our countries consciousness and as Coats would argue, still affecting us today.

 

We do not see overt racism very often in the United States today and it is generally quickly condemned by all. With overt segregation behind us, it is easy to assume that we have opened the doors of opportunity to all, and to assume that our success as an individual was no more likely than the success of any other person. We all had to make good decisions along our path and we all had to fight through obstacles with a sense of pride. Surely if we could do it, then so could any other person. Our focus on ourselves and the challenges we surmounted blind us to the reality that other people did not have the support, the starting point, and the random good luck that we had. What Coats refers to as The Dream is a set of circumstances that provide opportunities to some (opportunities that are hard to see) and criticizes those who do not achieve the same level of success without also having the same opportunities.

 

We think that what we are doing is good and just, but we are failing to recognize the ways in which we are maintaining division within society. We explain away our failure to act to help people by focusing on the sacrifices we had to make, on the frugal decisions we made with our money, and on the challenges we overcame. We do not see how our jokes, our inability to act, and our hidden acts of segregation (hiding behind economic household segregation) change the lives and opportunities of others.

 

This way of thinking allows systems to operate with unjust consequences and outcomes for racial minorities. Our human mind finds ways to take the blame off us and to place it on others who suffer, face greater challenges without support, and have historically been discriminated against. The act of recognizing the opportunities afforded to us but not others, and the act of recognizing how much we would struggle in another person’s shoes without the same opportunities is quite humbling, and takes away the facade of The Dream that Coats describes. Ultimately though, if we cannot recognize our self-interest and our brain’s ability to manipulate how we describe our self-interest, we will never reach a point where we are more just in our actions and decisions.

Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.

Twice as Good

Something I had felt but never put into coherent thoughts was the idea that racial minorities have had to be perfect throughout time to win the trust and respect of the majority population. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats expresses this idea more clearly than I had ever managed to do. He is critical of the idea of double standards, that in order for people to be respected they need to be virtually without fault. When it comes to these types of double standards he writes,

 

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. … No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to  take twice as much.”

 

Double standards between races lead to frustrations for minority populations because it steals part of their humanity. We are all going to make incredible mistakes along our paths and in search of what we want, but when you are forced to be perfect to overcome the prejudices of another, your mistakes become much more meaningful. Our nation has held down African American’s by restricting where they could buy housing, limiting who they could marry, and over arresting and over sentencing crimes by African Americans. We have a romanticized vision of the Civil Rights movement, and criticize African American protests of today. Historically, African American’s have been given less than freedom and opportunities than other people, and we have told them that protesting is not the way to address their inequities. We don’t expect them to be human and speak out against a system that fosters such inequalities, or is at least still haunted by the ghosts of such injustice, but instead to succeed and thrive in spite of such injustice and to be superhuman.

 

When we do this we ask a part of our nation to be more than the rest with less than the rest. We decide that we will only respect black people if they become successful and abandon the culture from which they came. What is worse, when they do find success, we use individual success to show that anyone can overcome the obstacles placed on them by society, and we chose to believe that the injustices faced by masses are simply excuses of laziness and failure. We do not see the double standards we set for African American populations, and we do not see the reality that we are asking them to be twice as good before we give people the respect they deserve simply by being human.

The Safety Myth

I have heard people, television show hosts, and family members make the argument that black communities are not over policed or over arrested because black people support the levels of policing that take place in their communities. I have heard the argument that confederate symbols really are not a problem because a famous black celebrity or athlete said they have never been bothered by them. I have heard the argument that black people want police protection and safety, so we should not be critical of our police who arrest black people in our ghettos and low income neighborhoods.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this argument and is able to break down some of the thinking taking place. He writes, “according to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.” Arguments to preserve our policing and arguments that discrimination and inequalities arise because they are what poor and minority communities want misplace the importance justice in our system.

Arguing against safety is difficult. It is hard to say that being safe and protected in your home or neighborhood is not something you want. Everyone would like to have a police force that could be relied upon given the dangers of society, but when  that police force is part of a system that does not provide equal justice, then there are problems in relying on them for protections, crime prevention, and security.

Coats continues and writes about his childhood and walking to school in Baltimore, “What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school! There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already gone wrong.” What Coats shows here is that our system was not forward thinking for black communities, but reactive to problems and crimes. Rather than operating in a system meant to reduce and limit dangers, the police reacted to dangerous incidents. Coats says that things had already gone wrong when the police arrived, but I think it is reasonable to say that things had already gone wrong when restrictive housing policies and racial segregation moved wealthier white people to suburbs, created inner city ghettos, and restricted poor minorities to less healthy environmental living spaces. If we valued justice more than our personal safety, we wound not just arrest black people and claim that our unequal justice system was justified by poor communities’ desires for protection from crime.

Policing

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.” Author Ta-Nehisi Coats wrote this in his book Between the World and Me to describe the relationship of our nation’s police force to the citizens of our country. The quote is brutal, honest, and hard to talk about, especially in today’s environment.What Coats argues is that our police behave in a way that society encourages or at the very least accepts as normal.

 

Much of the debate surrounding police shootings of African American men focus on the idea that a single bad officer made a bad decision. We understand that not all police officers are bad or act with racist motives,  but have trouble addressing crime, disparities in our criminal justice system, and trends among law enforcement and lawbreakers. We have trouble fitting personal responsibility (on both the officer’s and the criminal’s side) with societal expectations and observations. Coats encourages us to look beyond the actions of the police, and understand the climate in which the police operate. A society that truly did not accept police violence against racial minorities or against the population as a whole would not structure itself in a way that put police officers in difficult situations where they had the option to use deadly force or act in ways that allowed implicit bias to affect the lives of other people. There are choices we make as a society, and Coats argues that our society has chosen to allow a system to be in place where officers through no fault of their own intention, find themselves in situations where the use of deadly force (particularly against African American men) is justifiable in the moment, even if it does not seem justifiable in hindsight.

 

Coats argues that we cannot pin all the blame on a minority of police officers with poor attitudes. We equip our officers with weapons, send them to be the first point of contact when dealing with everyone from known criminals and gang members to psychologically traumatized but otherwise typical citizens. By organizing a society where minorities lived in tightly concentrated (and easy to police) neighborhoods, we built a system where policing and enforcing our laws lands disproportionately on certain individuals. There may not be easy solutions to these problems, but these problems did arise at least to some extent as a result of societal decisions. These decisions were made with tribal instincts operating under the surface, and often with fear driving the emotional state of individuals and communities.

 

By understanding that policing and crime does not take place in a vacuum we can understand the meaning of the quote at the start of this post. It is not just a few bad officers or individuals who have created a system that is racially charged and has lead to disparities in arrest rates or disparities in the use of deadly force. It is the will of a society that accepts violence against the poor, against racial minorities, and against those who seem dangerous that has created the explosively charged environment of our society today. Unless we acknowledge society’s role, we will never make the changes and address the issues that allow the situation to continue.